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How encrypted messaging changed the way we protest

Throughout human history, protests have served as a means for marginalized portions of society to vent their frustrations and make their feelings and demands known. From the Civil Rights Movement to the Arab Spring, such events have left an indelible mark upon global society.

The Arab Spring was notable for the significant role social media played in helping the protestors communicate, organize, and mobilize their activities. It was also a crucial medium for raising awareness of the events and the overarching cause on both a local and global level.

Indeed so influential were new digital channels that governments in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain resorted to strict censorship of the internet, either on a wholesale basis or via restricting access to certain websites, in a bid to quell the protests that were bubbling over in their countries.

Secure communications

Such efforts underline the ways in which authorities were attempting to utilize the very same channels the protestors are using to try and stymie the protests and limit their ability to reach critical mass. 2020 has seen no shortage of protests, whether the ongoing fight against the Fugitive Offenders Bill in Hong Kong, the Black Lives Matters protests in response to the death of George Floyd, or recent opposition to apparent electoral corruption in Belarus. 

Where things have changed since the Arab Spring, however, is in the media used by protestors to organize and coordinate their activities.

Jerusalem, Israel - 4 April 2009: A jubilant multinational crowd cheers a pro-peace performance by an Italian amateur dramatic society outside Damascus gate.

Understandably, therefore, protestors have been seeking a means to communicate and coordinate without authorities being able to listen in and disrupt their activities. The ever-evolving technological landscape has provided them with the answer in the form of encrypted messaging, which has come into its own in recent months.

Signal is the messaging service of choice for those in the cybersecurity field, with the app using its own protocol to provide robust and reliable end-to-end encryption for voice, video, and instant messages. It’s no surprise, therefore, that the number of downloads of the app has soared over the summer, with an estimated 51,000 downloads in the week after George Floyd’s death on the 25th of May. This then grew to 78,000 new downloads as the protests began to spread nationwide. 

By the first week of June, weekly Signal downloads had reached 183,000.

Signal's technology is based upon the AES-256, Extended Triple Diffie-Hellman, Double Ratchet, and Sesame protocols to make it arguably the most secure messaging app on the market. This is reinforced by the open-source nature of the technology rendering it a constant source of testing by the cybersecurity community.

Coordinating activity

With the utilization of social media during the Arab Spring, the promotional aspects of the messaging was a major factor. With platforms such as Signal, the focus is more on the coordination of activity and the recruitment of participants via word-of-mouth. The adoption of the technology has blossomed as awareness of the various tactics used by the police to monitor citizens during protests.

The end-to-end encryption deployed by Signal makes it impossible for law enforcement agencies to monitor what is being said, as it is literally only readable by the sender and the recipient. 

Of course, the fact that snooping is possible doesn’t mean that it’s happening.

But the fact that it’s possible, and that there is a clear incentive for government agencies to do so during mass protests renders it a risk many protestors are clearly preferring not to take.

As mentioned in my previous article, there are numerous forms of messaging services available, including traditional SMS messaging and the wildly popular WhatsApp, but encryption is considerably varied. SMS messages are not encrypted at all, so can be easily read, while WhatsApp’s encryption is only as secure as Facebook, and with moves being made to force tech companies to provide access to data, it remains to be seen how strong the company’s resolve remains for what is a free service.

By contrast, Signal has already proven its chops in this regard, as they stood up against a legal request for data back in 2016. Due to the nature of the service, they couldn’t actually provide much at all, and were only able to offer up the dates various accounts were created on, and when they’d last logged into the service. The fact that none of the data exchanged when we communicate via the platform is stored on company servers means nothing remains to be accessed by the government.

The changing nature of protest

The service is also fundamentally changing the nature of how we protest. For many years, experts in the domain have advised people to make sure they attend protests in as non-descript clothing as possible so that they can’t be easily identified in any footage from the protest. Signal is doing its own bit to help in that regard with the introduction of a new tool that allows for photos to be blurred to limit the ability of governments to identify people from their photos.

Of course, Signal is far from the only service to offer users a high degree of security and privacy, nor are they the only service used by protestors. 

For instance, Telegram is famous for its "secret chat" function that allows messages to be set to self-destruct across all devices.

It was popular with protestors in Hong Kong this year, and the tool of choice largely appears to be determined by the most popular service among one’s peer group. As with so much of the social web, the network effect is just as powerful with messaging apps, so the more of your friends, family members, and fellow protestors are using the same app, the more likely you are to follow suit. After all, the aim of these apps is to facilitate communication.

As concerns about privacy become more widespread, the use of secure communication channels is only going to become more important, whether for coordinating protests or simply having conversations you don’t wish anyone to be able to snoop on. There is a growing awareness of our personal responsibility to ensure that the way we behave online is conducive to the values we hold.

It is, of course, a constantly evolving space, and just as developers are striving to keep our data and our communication private, so too are government agencies working to allow law enforcement officers access when required. I wrote recently about the Lawful Access to Encrypted Data Act, which would force technology companies operating in the US to give the government and law enforcement agencies access to encrypted data when asked to do so, and this is but one of a number of initiatives that threaten our privacy online.

With governments barely able to be counted on to act in a responsible and upright manner, there are growing concerns that the powers they have will not be used to operate solely against proven criminals, but against the wider citizenry, for whom a war has been declared against those who oppose the state, or white supremacist groups, or one of any number of actors protestors take to the streets against. It’s an overreach that could increasingly see the law knocking on your door, and so we have to hope that developers continue working to ensure our privacy is maintained.

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